Marriage, Estonian style

  • 2008-04-23
  • By Marika Kristi Ets

LOVE MATCH: It's not that couples are not staying together, it is just that they are not marrying anymore.

TALLINN - You meet that perfect person. You fall in love, get married, and have children. That's the way it goes, right? Not necessarily.
In Estonia, people are just not getting married anymore. Take Karmen Olman, who has been with Ragnar Tuusk for seven years.
"I don't think [marriage] would really change anything.  I haven't seriously thought about getting married," she said.

It's a sentiment that many others echo. Only half as many Estonians tie the knot today as they did about 30 years ago. Many opt to live in "vabaabielu," or common-law marriage. According to Statistics Estonia, 58 percent of children were born to unmarried parents in 2003.
But why is marriage becoming obsolete in Estonia? Are Estonians terminally unromantic, or does the answer lies in more practical reasons?
One very simple reason is that some couples in long-term relationships just don't feel that marriage is necessary. Maris Poldveer, who has been with her partner for eight years and has a daughter, says: "I don't see a reason [to get married]. It's not papers that are living together 's it's people."

Olman agrees, "There's no practical reason to do it. Then again, there's also no reason why not."
It is clear that the idea of a wedding is not completely far-fetched. People don't reject marriage but they also don't consider it the only option for two people who want to be together.
"It's just not a primary thing for us but it seems that recently the number of people getting married has grown. I think it's nice that the tradition has its supporters," Poldveer said.

Some people actually want to be married but can't afford it. The standard Estonian wedding ends up costing about 1000 kroons (64 euros) per guest, not including the price of a honeymoon. It could take the couple ages to scrape together the cash for a wedding if they don't want to enter married life with huge loans to pay back.
"Every girl dreams of putting that white dress on from the time she's little. But for a lot of young people the issue is that weddings are quite expensive," says Mariann Roosnik who has been with her partner for over four years.
It is interesting to note that, despite all this, young unmarried couples still buy homes together. Investing in real estate is a practical choice, but marriage makes the arrangement more permanent and hard to walk away from.

Then there is tax. Unlike in the United States, where spouses get a significant tax break from filing jointly, Estonian couples are not as likely to benefit from filing income taxes together. Therefore couples live together without coveting the tax break.
Filing Estonian income taxes jointly may be beneficial when one person is not earning an income because the tax-free limit is still doubled for the one spouse's income and a larger return is received. Couples may consider a state-recognized union when children come into the picture and one parent must remain at home.
For some unmarried couples money is not the issue. Some people just use money as an excuse, when really they're afraid of commitment. The fact is marriage is always an intimidating step, particularly when you consider you may end up getting divorced. In Estonia about half of all the marriages end in divorce.  No wonder there is cynicism.

"The financial aspect has nothing to do with it," says Poldveer.
The same goes for Roosnik.
"Marriage makes a relationship more secure, it also brings responsibilities. I'm not sure that I'd want that right now," she said.
Still some people are still sitting on the fence.
"In the beginning I didn't think about details like that," says Riina Ounapuu, a Canadian-Estonian who has been in a relationship with an Estonian for four years.

"Lately I've thought about [marriage] more. We have a child now, I feel we could get married,"   she said.
Perhaps cynicism about the true staying power of marriage is partially to blame for fewer marriages. Estonia's economy has been on a steady rise for the last 15 years, and perhaps it has trained people to expect that something better is just around the corner.
"It's sad to see that people don't have that commitment. I hope people don't [live in common-law marriages] just so that they can get out easily," Ounapuu said.
Common-law marriages are accepted in Estonian society, but it's time that the law caught up with public perception.

"I see them as equal, but the law doesn't," says Tuusk
An updated family law is going into effect in 2009, but currently the state does not regulate common-law marriages in the same way as official marriages.
"I think that young people tend to think that they're equivalent, but older people see marriage as more secure and proper," says Olman

"I get the feeling that the word 'spouse' is somehow more valuable," agrees Ounapuu. She pointed out that at the President's Independence Day Ball, one of the most important social events of the year, "people are introduced as being with a 'spouse' or a 'companion.'"
Even though a clear difference is made in that formal social situation, Poldveer explained that there were no differences when talking to officials, or within most social circles.

Ultimately the choice comes down to personal preference. There are as many different viewpoints about marriage as people in Estonia. Perhaps the government will decide that marriages of all kinds are equivalent and make legal marriages more obsolete, or maybe marriages will make a comeback.
Either way, some couples will marry and some will not, but they are lucky enough to live in a society that will accept their decision either way.